Some unknown stories are so beautiful that you would rather not share them with anyone because you like to keep the acquired knowledge to yourself for one hundred percent selfish reasons. After all, the chest swells with superiority at the knowledge that one knows an intriguing story that everyone else is unaware of. No, it’s not a nice thought, but when reading The fast photographer – a story about the modern portrait it was not easy to resist the urge to hide. So incredible how the knowledge of an important, previously unrecorded episode from the early days of popular photography has disappeared from our collective memory.
The fast photographer, by the photo-historian Róman Kienjet, who works at the Rijksmuseum, describes the emergence of early (commercial) portrait photography for the general public, a phenomenon that spread mainly in the United States in the late 19th century and which also imprisoned Europe. : between 1912 and 1920 there were more than 150 studies in the Netherlands alone, where so-called fast photography was practiced. The term refers to the unprecedented short period between recording and printing. The fast techniques in the darkroom enabled production and low prices.
We know that photography was invented more or less simultaneously in London and Paris in 1839. That the creation of a photo – max. Circulation of 1 piece – was initially an eerily slow and cumbersome affair, with extremely long (hours long) recording times and a lot of fiddling with the preparation of light-sensitive material, and preserving the image, the fixation was something of a challenge.
We must still be grateful to the pioneers, such as French Nadar, who dared to descend with camera and torch into the dark Parisian catacombs to make the general public shudder at the sight of the hundreds of thousands of contaminants stacked there. Nadar taking a bird’s eye view from a hot air balloon. And his other frontiersmen, who took horse-drawn laboratories on wheels into the high mountains to take pictures of glaciers that the general public had never seen with their own eyes. They fully explored the unprecedented possibilities of photography and unleashed the potential of the new media as a fan.
They paved the way for photography that has definitely expanded and changed our view of the world, the news and other cultures. Their names – Nadar, Fox Talbot, Daguerre – are carved into our memories and monuments. But what about the photographers who, in the early 20th century, provided the masses with their own images for a penny? So that everyone could have a portrait of himself, someday a privilege for the elite, and his throne would be held for his children and grandchildren? The names of the facilitating photographers have been forgotten, just as their pioneering work has eluded us all. Fortunately, Kienjet is there to fix it.
In his book, Kienjet describes how, in a time of great technical progress, such as electrification, the arrival of cars and planes, mass production on assembly lines and economic growth, portrait photography has largely escaped the smart photo studios. How innovations caused established, unpretentious portrait photographers to be shocked and disgusted by competition from colleagues who prioritized the rapid delivery of their images and affordability to the general public over artistic ambitions. Expensive art made room for cheap mass production, which greatly lowered the study’s threshold for the general public to be portrayed.
‘Just press the button and you’re off. London New York, Cologne and Paris. Feel free to get on a bike ‘, was the slogan that so-called Tip Top studios used to promote themselves in advertising. Hipe names and boastful international attraction were part of this. Not fatter behind the camera, but the customer even pressed the record button: the ultimate democratization of the medium, which gave you the feeling of being master of your own photographic universe. The manual development and printing behind the scenes did not lessen the excitement.
The technological leaps forward (simple development processes, the introduction of cheap film negatives, cameras and record negatives that allowed more portraits) must have amazed the general public in the early 20th century as much as the digital revolution (the Internet, taking and sending photos and videos via email). mobile phone) has done so in the 21st century. It may not immediately lead to better compositions, but it did lead to much cheaper prints. For example, Automatic Photo Company offered 12 photos for 50 cents.
Fast photographers settled in the center of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague, Utrecht, but also in several provincial towns, Alkmaar, Groningen, Haarlem, Gouda, Gorredijk, in places where shopping and entertainment audiences could easily be tempted to pay an impulse visit to the studio: opposite the cinema in Langestraat in Alkmaar, on the Nieuwendijk and Kalverstraat in Amsterdam, or in the old Electro cinema in Veendam, where the American Snelphotography Foto Cie had moved in.
As often happens when entrepreneurs discover a craze and smell money, so it was with the fast-paced photo studios: they often disappeared just as quickly as they appeared. The investments were relatively small: for 750 guilders (currently 8,000 euros) a studio could be set up that gave 200 guilders a month. If one fast photographer established himself in a shopping street, he could often expect a competitor in the neighboring building.
Kienjet attaches particular importance to the invention of the Russian Anatol Josepho, who emigrated to America. After a short career as an assistant speed photographer, he got the idea for the so-called Photomaton, especially in Shanghai, where he had established himself as a portrait and speed photographer. His ‘Automatic Photographic Machine’ became the first fully automatic photocopier. One that did not falter, as other attempts often did, but functioned adequately and tirelessly spit out portraits.
Josepho put his first Photomaton on Broadway in New York in 1927. Four years later, a similar ‘photo booth’ followed in the Bijenkorf department store in Amsterdam, where on the day of commissioning there were tens of thousands of meters of candidates for an automatically produced portrait. Josepho had already sold his invention at the time for the astronomical sum of one million dollars. Investors took it for granted, fell victim to fraud or perished in the stock market crash of 1929, when Amsterdam had only just welcomed the news. However, similar photocopiers continued to exist, regardless of whether they were under different brand names: At trade fairs, markets, in gaming halls, the public was still enticed. And the great-grandchildren of Photomaton can still be found on the outskirts of the train stations’ departure halls, also in the Netherlands.
Photomaton’s fortunes are symptomatic of the decline of rapid photography as a whole. After the craze followed the habituation, the fun was lost and at most when someone needed a passport photo, he still crawled into the cabin. From the twenties and thirties, more and more photo enthusiasts bought a camera that was now affordable with which they could take their own snapshots and take their selfies avant la lettre. The heyday of fast photography was definitely over.
That the phenomenon has left so few testimonies, apart from yellowed photos in dusty family albums in basements and ceilings, is undoubtedly due to the relative anonymity of the entrepreneurs. It was not ‘writers’ who left artistic traces. But the background of the enterprising fast photographers also plays a role: Many were Jews. They perished during the Holocaust, and with them the stories they could have told future generations.
The pages that Kienjet has devoted to the wonderful collection of fast photos that he has collected in many archives are numerous. With a century of distance, they look us straight in the face: the ladies in the hat, the gentlemen in the smart suits, the girls in their Sunday dresses, the boys with the cap on. They look at us seriously – the stain of the eternal selfie smile has not been left on their faces – but also uninhibited: the lack of the photographer in front of them did not mean that they had to overcome their shyness. And so, even though they have turned to dust, they all come almost palpably close.
Roman Kienjet: The fast photographer – a story about the modern portrait† Walburg Press, 208 pages; € 29.99.
Next to the cinema
The attachment of The fast photographer contains, among other things, an address list of all Dutch fast photography studios. The electric fast photography of Rinze van der Velde in Leeuwarden, for example, was located in Nieuwestad, where the well-known Van der Velde bookstore is now located. Langestraat 90 in Alkmaar was once the address of a fast-paced photo studio that printed small on each picture and was located ‘next to the cinema’. The building that housed that cinema still exists. Due to its design, the original feature is still recognizable. Today, the Nelson shoe store is located there.